The coronavirus outbreak has ignited a partisan battle over whether the U.S. should enact measures to make it easier to vote by mail in the fall election.
After a legal wrangle, Wisconsin controversially went forward with its primary election on Tuesday during what is likely to be one of the worst weeks of the pandemic, raising thorny questions about whether people were putting their health and lives on the line by leaving their homes to vote.
Some are warning that Wisconsin could be a harbinger for things to come on Nov. 4 if the coronavirus lingers or kicks back up in the fall, putting poll workers and voters at risk.
Democrats are urging states to move toward all-mail elections, or at least to make it easier to vote absentee, saying it’s the only way to ensure that people don’t have to decide between risking their health and casting a ballot.
Republicans, led by President Trump, are resistant to the idea, warning that voting by mail is prone to fraud or administrative failures that would call into question the integrity of the election.
“Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to state wide mail-in voting,” Trump said over Twitter on Wednesday. “Democrats are clamoring for it. Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”
Trump cast a mail-in ballot in the GOP primary last month in Florida, which allows voters to request absentee ballots without providing an excuse as to why they need one.
If the U.S. were to move toward mail-in voting, several states have already demonstrated how to do so.
Thirty-five states allow voters to request absentee ballots for any reason.
Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, and Colorado only vote by mail, and several other states already incorporate voting by mail as an option beyond just absentee voting. One example is California, where any registered voter is allowed to request a ballot through the mail ahead of election day.
Alabama recently added the coronavirus to the list of reasons that voters can request an absentee ballot.
And Georgia has moved to make it dramatically easier for voters to receive absentee ballots for its May primary, mailing absentee request forms to nearly 7 million voters in an effort to encourage people to cast their ballots remotely during the coronavirus pandemic. Iowa has done the same.
Voting rights advocates say they don’t expect the nation to move to an all-mail election by November, and most believe that there should still be an in-person option for casting a ballot.
However, liberals say modest changes could be made between now and the election to accommodate voters who want to avoid lines and crowds at the polls, including a move to allow no-excuse absentee balloting, doing away with notarization requirements for absentee ballots, and allowing absentee ballots to be postmarked as late as Election Day.
“There’s plenty of time for these laws to be passed nationally and at the state level to facilitate this by November,” said Ezra Rosenberg, co-director of the Voting Rights Project for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “It’s important that there is still an in-person voting opportunity. Communities of color are historically less likely to vote by mail. But these changes would be very helpful during this time.”
Vote-by-mail has strong support from Democrats on Capitol Hill, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
The House version of the coronavirus stimulus bill rolled out by Pelosi last month included $4 billion in funding to go to states to make changes to elections in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. The bill would also have mandated the funding be used in certain ways, and that states make voting by mail an option for all registered voters, along with expanding early voting days.
However, the final version of the stimulus bill signed by Trump included only $400 million in election funds, and no mandates around how to use these funds.
Many Democrats and election rights advocates have pushed hard in the weeks since the stimulus became law for Congress to send at least $1.6 billion to states as part of the next coronavirus spending package, and that Congress impose requirements to ensure states allow vote-by-mail.
These Democrats are led by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who introduced legislation last month aimed at boosting vote-by-mail efforts.
While it is unclear whether Republicans, who backed the inclusion of the $400 million, will be in favor of sending the states more funding, they will almost certainly object to election requirements placed on states.
Many Republicans, including Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (D-Calif.), have objected to vote by mail due to concerns it would undermine Republican election chances.
Others, such as Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), the top Republican on the elections-focused House Administration Committee, see any Congressional requirements around elections as federalizing the process and taking power away from the states.
Adam Brandon, the president of the conservative group FreedomWorks, said that vote-by-mail efforts open the elections up to ballot harvesting and social pressures for voters from within their own households that they wouldn’t face in the privacy of a voting booth.
He argued that it would lead to a litany of 11th-hour legal wrangling, potentially delaying the outcome of the election for weeks beyond Election Day. Brandon noted that many Democrats regretted casting ballots early in the primary because their candidate later dropped out.
“We want to make sure that anyone who can vote, does vote, no question. Election Day should be a federal holiday and if you’re sick or have extenuating circumstances, you should be able to vote by mail,” Brandon said. “But it’s such a slippery slope when you talk about opening it all up to mail. It undermines the sanctity and privacy of your vote and it will result in teams of lawyers arguing over what gets counted and what doesn’t. Election Day should be a day of civic pride, not a day of civic anguish.”
Election officials in battleground states said they’re doubtful the U.S. will see a full-scale move to an all-mail election between now and November, although they’re preparing for an influx of absentee ballots.
State legislatures would have to ratify the move to an all-mail election, as most states are legally required to hold in-person voting.
The move to all-mail election on such short notice would be an administrative nightmare, requiring understaffed election commissions to print, mail and count tens of millions of ballots. It took Washington state several years to iron out its all-mail format.
“People think you can just flip a switch and go to mail-in balloting,” an election official in a battleground state said. “But it’s extremely challenging.”